Sept. 18, 2014
STATE: Native Explorers
The OSU Center for Health Sciences program ties American Indian culture with medicine and science.
Brent Battles, Jared Wahkinney and T’ata Roberts collect fossils from a site in western Nevada.
Under the blazing New Mexico sun, Jake Duke spent the first part of summer doing something he had never done before. Digging for vertebrate fossils.
“My favorite part was digging up actual prehistoric fossils,” says Duke, who is in the first year of his doctoral program in hospitality administration at OSU. “I got the opportunity to learn about areas of science that I knew very little about.”
Duke was one of 10 American Indian college students who participated in a unique summer expedition for college students offered by the OSU Center for Health Sciences in Tulsa. The program, Native Explorers, combines science and medicine with American Indian cultures to spark an interest in these career fields.
Dr. Kent Smith, interim associate dean in the Office for the Advancement of American Indians in Medicine and Science and associate professor of anatomy and cell biology at OSU-CHS, is hoping to attract American Indians to medicine and other STEM– short for science, technology, engineering and mathematics – professions through Native Explorers.
“Growing up as a Native American, there was a paucity of Native professors and research scientists who could serve as mentors for me,” says Smith, who is Comanche and Chickasaw. “Less than 1 percent of university faculty are of American Indian descent and only 2.5 percent of those are in a STEM field.”
Smith co-founded Native Explorers Foundation with Reggie Whitten, one of two senior partners at Whitten Burrage Law Firm in Oklahoma City. Jeffrey Hargrave currently serves as the executive director of the Native Explorers Foundation, which provides funding for the programs initiatives.
“I was immediately attracted to Native Explorers because of my ancestry and desire to help those who don’t have a lot of opportunities outside their communities,” says Hargrave, who is Muscogee Creek and Choctaw. “Growing up in Indian Country, I saw first hand the lack of opportunities for our youth to learn and experience science.”
Each summer, 10 American Indian college students are selected to participate in the summer science and cultural expedition. They start at the OSU Center for Health Sciences in Tulsa to learn more about medicine and OSU’s physician training programs.
“The unique program offers hands-on activities in an outdoor setting to get these students excited about sciences,” Smith says. “We also show them how science blends with Native cultures and traditions and help them realize that how science impacts their lives every day.”
The blend of tradition with science is what attracts many applicants to the highly competitive program.
“Mixing in the culture with the science really made Native Explorers multi-dimensional and added depth to the learning process,” says Duke, who earned his bachelor’s degree from in 2010 and Master of Business Administration in 2013 at OSU. “It made the entire program an exciting journey.”
Participants then move on to several paleontological and historical American Indian cultural sites located across the southwestern U.S. In 2014, the group traveled to several locations across the Southwest. After a one-day trip to the OSU Center for Health Sciences in Tulsa, the group traveled to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where they met with Gary Morgan, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. He provided a tour of the vertebrate collections for the students.
The also stopped in northern New Mexico, where they collected vertebrate fossils under the guidance of Morgan and Philip Gensler, regional paleontologists for Arizona, California and New Mexico at the United States Bureau of Land Management in Santa Fe. The group was honored as special guests at the Taos Pueblo.
The final stop on the expedition was a trip to west-central Nevada, where students collected rock samples for radiometric dating and learned about the local geology of the rock units.
“Since we started the program, our participants have made several scientific discoveries, which have resulted in peer-reviewed publications” Smith says. “It is awesome to see their reactions when they find something new and experience the science involved in paleontology.”
Any American Indian 18 years and older may apply for the Native Explorers program. Applications are accepted each spring, with 10 students ultimately accepted.
Native Explorers has partnerships with scientists and educators at Oklahoma tribes like the Chickasaw Nation and Comanche Nation, museums like the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, Nevada State Museum and the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, universities like OSU, University of New Mexico, University of Oklahoma, and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, and federal agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Arizona, California, Nevada and New Mexico. These scientists and educators serve as mentors for the students and assist with the summer program.
Dr. Nicholas Czaplewski, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, is one of those mentors. His work with Native Explorers has enabled the program to access a variety of paleontological resources and internship opportunities for the students.
“Our mentors help us cultivate connections with the participants after they head back home,” Hargrave says. “Several of our participants have come back to serve as mentors to other students.”
Brandie Macdonald is one of those students. She first attended Native Explorers in 2011 and has returned twice to serve as a mentor.
“I had an amazing experience my first year and made friendships and connections with people I never imagine; we became a big family. It transformed the way I view the sciences and let me work side-by-side with some brilliant people who were willing to share their expertise with me,” says Macdonald, a museum educator at the Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. “Going back the second year as a mentor was like going home again. Each year it gets a little bigger and we are able to share this incredible experience with a new group of students.”
A member of the Chickasaw Nation, Macdonald enjoyed the program so much, she implemented parts of it in her current position in South Dakota to encourage students there to consider careers in science fields.
Native Explorers participants receive three hours of upper level undergraduate college credit through OSU, with all the tuition and fees paid for by the Chickasaw Nation and the Whitten Burrage Law Firm and the Whitten-Newman Native Explorers Scholarship Fund.
The Native Explorers program is part of an expanded effort by OSU Center for Health Sciences to attract American Indians students to careers as physicians and scientists. The new Office for the Advancement of American Indians in Medicine and Science serves as an outreach effort to Native American tribes in Oklahoma.
“Our goal is to identify American Indians who have an interest in medicine and science and increase the number of Native American students in our medical and graduate programs,” Smith says. “We’ll be working with tribes on ways to combine culture and traditions with the health and wellness needs of their citizens to make a positive impact on our state.”
The effort has been a top priority for OSU Center for Health Sciences President Kayse M. Shrum. The outreach program fits well with the OSU-CHS mission to provide primary care physicians to underserved areas of Oklahoma.
“Oklahoma is experiencing a shortage of physicians, primarily in rural areas of the state,” Shrum says. “We are working to develop relationships with tribal leaders to develop programs to attract American Indian students who will return to their communities to practice medicine.”
Native Explorers is personal for Hargrave. He wants to see more American Indian students graduating from college and coming back to serve as mentors for future generations.
“Native Americans have the lowest graduation rates among all the minorities,” he says. “I see Native Explorers as a way to combat these terrible stats and improve our education system in Indian Country.”
The program is already having an impact for students like Duke, who want to expand their knowledge in science fields.
“It makes me wish I had pursued a science degree when I was an undergraduate,” Duke says. “But, it is great to know that there are programs out there now that will introduce students to these science fields at an early age.”
Summer expedition 2015
Applications will open soon for the next Native Explorers summer expedition in 2015. Visit www.NativeExplorers.org to find out how to apply.
This story originally appeared in the Fall 2014 edition of STATE magazine.